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Nurture Provision

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 15th November 2016.

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Debate resumed on amendments to motion:

That this Assembly welcomes the report by the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation at Queen's University Belfast, entitled 'The Impact and Cost Effectiveness of Nurture Groups in Primary Schools in Northern Ireland'; welcomes the commitment of the Minister of Education to continuing to fund the 32 nurture units across Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of Education to examine potential options to mainstream nurture provision within the current education budget. — [Lord Morrow.]

Which amendments were:

No 1: Leave out all after the second "Northern Ireland;" and insert "recognises the role effective early years interventions can play in reducing the need for nurture units; and calls on the Minister of Education to examine potential options to develop universal early years education provision.". — [Mr Agnew.]

No 2: Leave out all after the second "Northern Ireland;" and insert "and, as recommended in the report by Queen's University, calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that a sustainable funding model is put in place for the longer-term viability of nurture group provision, to plan the further expansion of nurture provision in each primary school sector targeted in the areas of greatest need, to develop appropriate training for staff and to conduct research into models for the delivery of nurture provision.". — [Mr McGrath.]

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Unaccustomed as I am to commending government projects, I have to say that my experience of the nurture project is very positive.

I think that it has been most successful, where it has been allowed to operate, in reaching out to those in greatest need.

In my constituency, we sadly only have one nurture project, at Harryville Primary School. We have some adjacent ones. There is a very successful one at Ballycraigy Primary School, and there is quite a good one at Harpur's Hill in Coleraine. It seems that these projects have been successful in inducing in the kids better behaviour, more interest in school — some may be coming from a background where that is not overly encouraged — and, indeed, interest in the joys of education through improving their reading capacity and all those things. So the pilot schemes that have taken place, from what I hear of them, appear to have been quite good. I am relying almost more on the anecdotal evidence that I hear from my constituents than on the very positive report from Queen's University.

One of the criticisms — it is not to do with the delivery of the project and those who deliver it — is to do with the drip feed nature of the funding. It was delivered under Delivering Social Change. The Department of Education was just the conduit for passing on the money, meaning it had to wait for the release of the money from OFMDFM, as it then was, and then it passed it on. That drip feed is the core problem with going forward with the project and putting it on a stable footing. We are not talking about a lot of money. When you think that the commitment to each nurture unit was of the order of £70,000, and that multiples of that are often spent with little apparent effect, it seems to be giving a good return for the spend. It is not that hard to establish it. It obviously needs a room kitted out, a teacher and probably a classroom assistant but, after that, its demands are relatively modest. Therefore, I would be very supportive of the idea of expanding that provision within the mainstream. That can only be positive.

One of the most distressing and saddening things for anyone who has any relationship with education is to see kids pass through the system, knowing that they are not taking the best out of it, maybe not being encouraged from home and elsewhere to take the best out of it, and not achieving their full potential — in fact, becoming alienated from the education system, whereas education should be the door to the world for all of us. It is by going through that door and experiencing it that we move on to greater things and make a really worthwhile contribution to society. Trying to capture a sector of our kids who are lagging behind can only be a good thing. Therefore, I encourage the Minister to be bold in advancing the scheme and mainstreaming the funding so that it has certainty and can progress to attain the ends in even greater form to what it has already attained.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank Members for their contributions today. It has been a very productive debate. We have found ourselves largely in vigorous agreement. Indeed, when even Mr Allister commends the Government, we should ring the date on the calendar. I thank him for his words as well. I have taken a keen interest in nurture since my days on the Education Committee. It has always been an issue that Members have recognised as an effective means of supporting our most vulnerable children. Indeed, just before I came to office, I visited a primary school in Slate Street in west Belfast and Rathcoole Primary, and, last week, I had the opportunity to go to Harryville Primary. I think Northern Ireland has a total of seven Boxall awards, which is more or less the national award for nurture, and Harryville received it last week. I think that, as Mr Allister said, the impact, not just on the children themselves but on the whole school, is demonstrably beneficial.

In case there was any indication or any belief that there is any level of criticism of other schools, I will say that, in general, I think that our schools offer themselves as very caring and supportive places. I commend them for the good work that they do. Irrespective of whether they are directly involved in a nurture project, schools do a great deal to nurture children. However, it is clear that some children need extra help, and that is where nurture groups come in.

Several Members outlined what nurture groups are and the basis on which they operate, so I will not delay proceedings by reiterating that. I will simply note that the groups work with children from years 1 to 3 who are suffering with attainment difficulties by building their trust and self-confidence and, ultimately, equipping them with skills and strategies that, effectively, can put them back in mainstream classes. The reasons why children need nurture are varied and are often unaddressed but, in every case, these can lead to barriers to learning and long-term achievement. Preventing that waste of opportunity is what nurture is for. As a number of Members have mentioned, it is a financial investment, because there is a certain level of investing to save, and a particular investment in human capital.

On the progress of this scheme, initially, 20 nurture groups were set up under the Executive's Delivering Social Change programme. This was jointly delivered by Education and DSD, and it was then extended to establish another 10 and then another two nurture groups. When Delivering Social Change funding ended in 2015, DFP provided support through its change fund, and the Department of Finance has recently provided additional resources to the two Irish-medium schools. I put on record my thanks for all of the support for this. While these efforts precede the Children's Services Co-operation Act, I think that they exemplify its intent that Departments should work together to deliver for children. As a result of these collective efforts, over 700 children have attended a nurture group, with 800 additional children receiving short-term support during crisis situations.

We have heard a great deal about the recent Queen’s University evaluation. That was a very robust study that showed that the groups were successful in supporting children who were previously struggling to cope in school. It highlighted particular benefits for looked-after children and children involved with social services, two highly vulnerable groups. It found that nurture groups were cost-effective and had a real potential to reduce the need for long-term educational, health, social services and justice interventions.

As well as referencing the Queen's University evaluation, Members referenced the ETI evaluation. Again, that showed a significant positive impact on children's social, emotional and behavioural development, building resilience and helping them to learn more effectively. ETI found that the new groups quickly became highly effective, and this gives me real confidence that the model can be equally effective in many other schools.

Today's motion asks that I commit my Department to building upon this success. I am happy to give that commitment. Coming to one of the points that Mr Allister made, I have already committed the Department to developing a new nurture programme, and, until that new nurture programme is put in place and we reach a point where that can be properly mainstreamed, funding will be sustained to the existing 32 groups. It is worth reflecting that Departments have already invested £8 million in nurture. Several Members have already noted the benefits of nurture beyond education and that that contributes to several aspects of the new Programme for Government. I fully recognise this, and I have asked my officials to explore how a new programme can continue to build on this existing collaboration. Those conversations have already commenced.

The costs of nurture are not insignificant. Sustaining the 32 groups will cost the Department around £2·3 million. There will be challenges to the budget, but I will stand over my commitment to those 32 groups. The new PFG asks Departments to focus their efforts on outcomes rather than expenditure, targeting expenditure on those areas where they can deliver the greatest impact. In considering the Queen's University report, I could not ignore the fact that nurture has demonstrated that it is a proven, outcome-driven intervention that transforms children's lives.

For that reason, I can assure Members that I will be ambitious in planning for a new programme and vocal in fighting for the resources to deliver it.

The shape of a new nurture programme is still to be determined, but I can confirm that the current nurture group model will sit at its heart. Where a nurture group is viable and sustainable, that model of delivery provides the best possible outcomes. I do not think that anyone can pretend that we can fund every school wishing to have a nurture group. I appreciate that Mrs Barton raised the issue of post-primary. If we were to mainstream it in all 1,000 schools, that would probably cost an extra £70 million. Evaluation has recommended that we should continue to target provision at schools with the greatest need. While no future selection criteria have been agreed, I want to make sure that they are based on comprehensive, objective and up-to-date data. Naturally, I will have regard to all the Department's statutory duties.

Several Members commented on the need to extend the reach of nurture provision as broadly as possible. One of the things that struck me very much when visiting schools was that the nurture unit is not just for the children who are directly involved; it creates a whole-school model. That will also be part of any future programme.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 4:30 pm, 15th November 2016

I thank the Minister for giving way. I welcome the fact that he visited Harryville in my constituency with us last week. I was proud to be the person who opened the Harryville nurture unit a number of years ago. I pay tribute to his officials, one of whom, who is in the House today, has worked extremely hard on the issue. Will the Minister make sure that nurture becomes mainstream in the school and is not something that is looked on as an isolated class in an isolated classroom?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

To be fair, the schools that have embraced nurture have very much taken that mainstreaming attitude. There is an issue about mainstreaming in the budget; there is also an issue about mainstreaming in the schools. I was reflecting the fact that there is a commonality of approach. For instance, schools have a sort of quiet room, which might not be a bad idea for us to adopt at Stormont.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

One or two might be in it.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Yes. I will not ask whether the Member is intending to do that.

The projects receive specialist support. In future, that resource will be extended to any school that wants to consider a whole-school nurturing approach. It is also not simply about the schools that we provide the direct support and funding to but about ensuring that the experience is rolled out. Whatever the constraints, that will enable the benefits of nurture to be felt much more widely. There is still significant work to be undertaken, but I intend to bring forward plans for a new nurture programme next year and to have additional nurture groups operational by 2018-19.

I turn now to the two amendments. Amendment No 1 talks about the need to recognise the role of early years interventions in reducing the need for nurture units. I agree with a lot of what Mr Agnew said. That is the second time today, so I am a little worried. Whether that should worry him more than me, I do not know. I have some concerns, however, about the wording of his amendment. I cannot remember who made the point that a separate motion dealing with early years intervention might be a better way of dealing with it directly. I very much recognise the importance of early intervention. However, to tie that in directly with some belief that it will lead to a reduction in the need for nurture units is probably the wrong approach. There is not quite the same level of nexus.

There is universal provision in the preschool admissions process, where we have about 99·8%, but I appreciate the point that we need to ensure that provision is there for the families that could most benefit from it. While wider nurture provision can only be helpful in adding to the mix of services, nurture groups are an important intervention in their own right. On that basis, it may not be ideal to tie the two together.

Both amendments have worthy intentions, but they are mutually exclusive, so the House can adopt only one or the other. From that point of view, amendment No 2, which stands in the names of members of the SDLP, is very much in the spirit of the original motion. It follows the direction of travel that I want to go in, so I am happy to support it.

I welcome this debate and all the positive contributions that we have heard. I will reflect on Members' comments as I develop my plans. Given the amount of agreement around the Chamber, I suspect that this issue may not lead the news tonight or feature on tomorrow morning's radio programmes. Maybe society is a bit the worse for that. However, I welcome what has been said. I have visited a number of nurture units, and I will do that on a continual basis. The only word that properly describes the difference that nurture makes to children's lives is "transforming." I believe that nurture classes have much more to offer our education system.

I am happy to endorse the motion and amendment No 2. I commend them to the House.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is often the case that the simplest stories convey the most graphic truths. Some years ago, I went to see staff in a school in west Belfast. I went into a nurture class, and the school principal told me that the child to whom I was talking came to school not knowing how to handle a pen or pencil. Earlier in the debate, a Member gave the example of a child in a nurture class having to learn how to eat breakfast. Those stories are multiple, and all Members could tell them. They capture the essence of the challenge on the one hand and the value of nurture classes on the other. That is not least in the context of what was said to me by the principal of a school on the lower Falls, who told me a short time ago that the number of children at preschool and primary 1 who presented with challenges and multiple issues was greater than at any time in her working life. Therefore, the requirements of nurture and the care requirements of our young people from birth to six years, in particular, are more critical and acute than they have ever been.

In the spirit of the debate, the SDLP will support the Green amendment, if it is pressed, because we think that there is a need for a comprehensive approach. If that amendment is defeated, we call on all Members and parties to support the SDLP's amendment. That is the tone and tenor of the debate.

I take the point raised by Mr Lyttle that the requirements for nurture are not exclusive to areas of disadvantage. It is more concentrated in such areas for reasons that are captured in many reports, but it is not exclusive to them because there will be children in less disadvantaged areas who will have the struggles and the challenges of those in disadvantaged areas. In that spirit, I will explain the SDLP amendment. The reason why we proposed the amendment is that we should borrow from the Queen's University review of nurture and take forward explicitly its key recommendations: sustainable funding; expansion in each primary-school sector; developing appropriate training for staff; and conducting research into models of delivery. We think that that is a comprehensive approach. That is why we welcome the Minister's comments and those of other parties that they will endorse it.

My view — I have said this before, I think — is that the SDLP's first motion of this mandate was on childcare. The reason why the SDLP tabled that motion is that the paradigm shift of this mandate — we had that conversation with the Minister just last week — has to be to recognise that, for all the multiple interventions in the lives of children and in areas of need, it is the concentration of intervention from birth to age six that is the most critical, acute challenge that, in my view, faces the Assembly.

I am saying that in the context of the challenges of organised crime, paramilitarism and the health service. Of all the issues that touch on the lives of our people and the life of the Assembly, the most important challenge is a paradigm shift that sees the directing of resources and strategy into the lives of children from the moment of birth — indeed, from before being born — to the age of six. The Programme for Government, and government itself, should be measured against that standard.

The reason why this debate has been different in tone and character from others that we have had over the last number of months is the nature of the issue and the consensus of response in the Assembly. It is also because this Minister has taken the opportunity to recognise that those who speak from Opposition Benches do not speak simply to oppose but to propose and create. That is the measure of this Minister, and I want to acknowledge that.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

In front of us we have three complementary proposals. That has been reflected in the debate, which has been largely a discussion on how we maximise benefits for children. We have a consensus that we want to support children to achieve their potential; we have a consensus that nurture units work in that regard; and we have a consensus that there should be secure funding for existing nurture provision.

I put it to the Minister that whatever final wording is agreed today, and we sometimes take that as the be-all and end-all — what is cast in stone — he and his Department should take into account the whole debate rather than the final wording. I see that he is nodding his head. If we agree any more, our constituents are going to be very confused.

I think this shows that we are taking an evidence-based report from Queen's University, and the evidence on early years, as I mentioned, from Professor Heckman, Dr Suzanne Zeedyk and others.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member accept that we had the evidence for a long time, when nurture was working successfully in places such as Ballysally Primary School, Coleraine, and Holy Family Primary and Nursery School, Londonderry? It took the Department a long time to recognise its value. Now, we have this report and a Minister who is being proactive on the issue.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member for his intervention. I take his point that evidence does not lead to quick change. That is the point I would make about early years and why, at every opportunity, I keep making the point and the argument, as Mr Attwood just did, that this is the single most important intervention that we can make.

Whilst we have that evidence and whilst the Minister has, seemingly, agreed to take into account the wider aspects of this debate, we have not seen that paradigm shift towards early years funding. I appreciate that you cannot simply say that, overnight, you are going to stop funding these services for children and young people in later life because the evidence is that the benefit is earlier. It has to be a managed transition. However, every time we call for additional funding or receive additional funding — recently, £18 million was proposed for PE to tackle obesity — we have to take those opportunities to invest in nought to six, follow the evidence and make those impacts.

So, in the spirit of the debate, I will not push my amendment to a Division. I appreciate the SDLP magnanimously proposing to support it but we have not had a divisive debate and we should not have a divisive outcome. I am happy, as was suggested, to bring forward a motion specifically on early years. I ask simply that I be empowered by the Business Committee to do so or that another party brings it forward in conjunction with the Green Party. We should take consensus when we have it and build on it. Even Mr Allister my honourable colleague gave credit to the Government. When we reach that level of consensus, we should bank it.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP 4:45 pm, 15th November 2016

I thank the Members who participated in the debate. It has been a momentous occasion for the House in the level of agreement. I want to start by commending the Minister for all his work on and commitment to nurture units and for the commitment that he gave throughout his speech on their sustainability and on looking at new ways of doing this. I trust that, when I ask him for one in Upper Bann, he will be so obliging.

It has been a good debate. We have been very clearly educated about nurture units. I have only entered the Assembly and taken up my role on the Education Committee, and I have not had the privilege of visiting a nurture unit; I will make a point of doing that. There is no question that nurture units help to develop children and young people who avail themselves of them. Quite often, these young people, as we heard, are some of the most vulnerable in society —

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank my colleague from Upper Bann for giving way. The Member is quite right. I represent North Belfast, and Edenbrooke Primary School in the greater Shankill is one of the schools that is fortunate enough to have a nurture unit. As a governor there, I have seen the difference that that has made to the young people. I have heard from the teachers, the parents and, in particular, the principal about the immense effect that has had on those young people. It also ripples out into the classroom and the community.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I thank the Member for his contribution; maybe that is the one that I will visit, if you are willing to be accommodating.

From my perspective, it is important that these children and young people experience this in a safe environment, and I believe that there is probably nowhere safer than a school setting. Whilst things may be falling apart around them in their life, as children and as individuals, it is important that there is some structure in the school setting.

There has been reference to the Queen's University report, and I will quote the director of the centre for evidence and innovation, Paul Connolly:

"research provides clear evidence of the benefits of nurture groups for children who face challenges in their early years in education. We found that nurture groups led to significant improvements in social, emotional and behavioral outcomes".

There was mention of the Marjorie Boxall award for nurture provision, and Rathcoole was, I think, the latest unit to receive that award.


Apologies — it was Harryville; we commend them.

I will move to Members' contributions. Lord Morrow led on this and very eloquently outlined the DUP's position. He has always championed the need to ensure that children who are on the margins of society have adequate provision. He said that a stitch in time saves public funds and gives hope for families, and I think that the message that has been woven throughout today's debate is that early intervention and the money spent on nurture units will have a positive effect in the future. He noted that there was funding from a variety of sources and that there is no doubt that the Minister is committed to trying to mainstream that and to move it forward from within the education budget so that each nurture unit has some security in its long-term provision.

Steven Agnew moved amendment No 1 and commended Peter Martin, one of my colleagues, who has done a lot of work on this.

You quite rightly said it was important to get the foundations right. You noted the reality that there are limited resources. We acknowledge that. I think it has to be said that there is not a bottomless pit of money, but, again, there has been a commitment. I also note that you quoted the £1/£9 scenario, and, again, that demonstrates that, if we invest early, it will have a positive impact.

I note that Colin McGrath, moving the second amendment, said that he welcomed the Queen's University report. I know that, with his background, he is very interested in the long-term impact of nurture units on youth provision. He said he wants to see them widened, as well as a sustainable funding model, which was the train of thought of most people throughout the House.

In her comments, Jennifer McCann talked about the units having a very similar environment to the home. Again, there was widespread support for the fact that these children are getting very basic skills. Fortunately, quite a few of us in the House probably never experienced that situation because we were brought up in a relatively stable environment. I think that was well noted. She also noted the need to make sure that places are provided to families who have got caught in the trap of deprivation. That point has been well made.

Sandra Overend noted that, throughout the UK, there are quite a number of nurture units and said that there was maybe something we could learn from them and share. You also noted — through the Chair — that early intervention is important and that social, emotional and behavioural skills are developed in nurture units. You noted that it cost £70,000 per school and were keen to see some further research. You said you would support amendment No 2 and vote against amendment No 1.

Chris Dickson said there was a 57% reduction in behavioural problems as a result of nurture units. He said that — Chris Lyttle: apologies. This is my first time giving a winding-up speech in a debate, so please bear with me. One in five showed improvements having been in a nurture unit, which, I think, is a good statistic to quote. The costs for families and social services etc can be addressed and mitigated by nurture units and can actually be reduced. You also noted the academic achievements and said that further research is needed into those. The Minister broadly agreed that he would look at that situation.

My colleague Phillip Logan said there are clear indicators within the report that intervention works and that there is a wider school impact. When schools as a whole benefit from these nurture groups, they say it has a ripple effect — like a stone in a pond — on other classes. He commended the Minister for his commitment to further investment. He said it was likely to pay for itself in two years, which, again, demonstrates its viability and sustainability.

Barry McElduff spoke as Chair of the Education Committee. He said that nurture sits well with other early interventions. I think that is very true; I do not think nurture is a silver bullet to deal with all the problems that can occur in a young person's life, but I believe it has its place and is very cost-effective.

Rosemary Barton outlined how she wants to see the best start in life for children. She wants nurture groups to be rolled out in all areas throughout the country, in all schools, and to look towards post-primary. I certainly take Mrs Barton's comments on board, but we have to look at the sustainability and viability of it. I think that the Minister made the point with regard to the amount of funding that it would take to have it in every school.

Catherine Seeley, in her contribution to the debate, said that it did help in the development of positive relationships.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

Yes. Obviously, Sinn Féin agreed to it. I think that it would be remiss of me not to mention that our colleague Jim Allister agreed with the Government. We certainly welcome that. It is a historic move.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Order. The Member's time is up.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

Thank you very much.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I feel the hand of history.


Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I remind Members that if it is made, I will not put the Question on amendment No 2.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I seek to withdraw amendment No 1.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has sought leave to withdraw the amendment standing in his name. If there are no objections, the amendment will be withdrawn.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly welcomes the report by the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation at Queen’s University Belfast, entitled 'The Impact and Cost Effectiveness of Nurture Groups in Primary Schools in Northern Ireland'; welcomes the commitment of the Minister of Education to continuing to fund the 32 nurture units across Northern Ireland; and, as recommended in the report by Queen’s University, calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that a sustainable funding model is put in place for the longer-term viability of nurture group provision, to plan the further expansion of nurture provision in each primary school sector targeted in the areas of greatest need, to develop appropriate training for staff and to conduct research into models for the delivery of nurture provision.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the House to take its ease while we make changes.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]